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Politics Ontario Liberals look to make big cuts to climb out of deficit

The province’s public-sector unions say the job cuts have already begun, as the Liberals have frozen or constrained funding to hospitals and social-service agencies. The Ontario Nurses’ Association says a total of 409 registered nurse positions have been chopped since the start of 2015, mostly through attrition.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is eliminating registered nurse jobs, courting labour unrest with teachers and clawing back social services – including a $100 monthly benefit for disabled people who work – as it seeks to dig itself out of deficit.

While Premier Kathleen Wynne has spent the last year highlighting big-ticket projects, particularly new public transit lines, much of her fiscal plan involves making serious cuts.

This austerity suggests Ms. Wynne is serious about reaching budget balance and dealing with the largest subsovereign debt in the world. But it also runs counter to the Liberals' constant rhetoric about protecting services, and bears a striking resemblance to the government-shrinking platform of the Progressive Conservatives in last year's election.

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Finance Minister Charles Sousa's budget Thursday is expected to bring more of the same. It will have to shave at least $2-billion off the deficit as the province looks to balance the books by 2017, and much of that fiscal progress will come in the form of cuts. Government projections show an average yearly increase in program spending of just 1.1 per cent – a figure that will amount to a spending freeze or reduction once inflation is factored in.

Deputy Premier Deb Matthews said Wednesday such a hard line is necessary to get the province's fiscal house in order.

"When you've got a significant deficit, we have to be very, very careful with every dollar that we spend," she said. "We are going through every line of every ministry and we are asking ourselves, 'Are we getting best value, best outcomes for this money?' So yeah, there will continue to be change."

Ms. Matthews also left the door open to slashing the size of the public sector, despite the fact the Liberals largely won re-election by attacking then-Tory leader Tim Hudak's plan to balance the books by cutting 100,000 government jobs.

The province's public-sector unions say the job cuts have already begun, as the Liberals have frozen or constrained funding to hospitals and social-service agencies.

The Ontario Nurses' Association says a total of 409 registered nurse positions have been chopped since the start of 2015, mostly through attrition. "We don't have the appropriate number of nurses to monitor our patients," ONA president Linda Haslam-Stroud said.

Fred Hahn, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario, said jobs in everything from early childhood education to childrens' aid are on the block. In other instances, developmental services workers have seen their hours cut back, he said. And he pointed to childrens' aid societies, including one in Hamilton, that have given employees unpaid days off.

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"You can cut 100,000 jobs in a bunch of different ways. You can do it as a blunt instrument and campaign on it, like Tim Hudak, or you can starve services of funding while saying you're progressive," he said.

Many of the cuts have fallen in low-visibility areas. The government, for instance, is eliminating $100 monthly payments to Ontario Disability Support Program recipients who work. ODSP recipient Kyle Vose said the payment helps cover work-related costs, such as transportation.

The government is replacing the benefit with a different program meant to help ODSP recipients who are not currently working find jobs. But Mr. Vose says the new program does nothing to help recipients who already have work, and it is also discretionary, meaning government can choose to deny the funds.

"I think you'll see that a lot of people will have to quit working," he said. "They're nickeling and diming the program."

On the labour front, meanwhile, the Liberals are staring down high school teachers in pursuit of lean contracts. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation went on strike this week in Durham, and has set strike deadlines in both Peel Region and Sudbury next month.

"No matter where you look, it's like Kathleen Wynne is implementing Tim Hudak's agenda," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who favours plugging the province's fiscal gap by eliminating some corporate tax breaks.

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Progressive Conservative finance critic Vic Fedeli, meanwhile, said he favoured scrapping government subsidies to business to deal with the deficit. He said the government has tried to distract people by playing up such policies as selling beer in grocery stores, while simultaneously chipping away at services.

"They're doing it by stealth – a little here, a little there," he said. "It's affected every single community in Ontario."

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